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Hello, Jet Sim: Barrel Rolls, Loops, and Vertigo

Sep. 20, 2012 - 02:23PM   |  
By LAUREN BIRON   |   Comments
My first trip into a jet simulator (technically a cockpit demonstrator) found me in the T-50, a supersonic two-seat trainer used by the South Korean military.
My first trip into a jet simulator (technically a cockpit demonstrator) found me in the T-50, a supersonic two-seat trainer used by the South Korean military. (Lockheed Martin)
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The last time I flew a plane, I crashed it.

Not just once, either. I drove that sucker into the ground repeatedly. It was the HotSeat Chassis Flex Sim, which allows people in wheelchairs to develop fine motor skills by flying a simulated airplane.

I had thought I would be a born sim flyer, having successfully not crashed a Cessna in real life and adequately navigated a flying Yoshi in “Super Mario Bros.

But the Flex Sim taught me that simulated aircraft can be just as difficult to fly as those in the real world. Also, my motor skills could use some fine tuning.

One can thus understand my slight trepidation (read: crushing anxiety mixed with excitement) when Lockheed Martin invited me to try their T-50 Cockpit Demonstrator, a sim for the Korean-based two-seater jet that the company is pitching as a replacement trainer for the aging T-38.

Because who doesn’t want to crash a jet in front of a group of defense executives and the chief test pilot for F-16s?

Of course, Lockheed Martin wasn’t the only company showing off a replacement jet trainer at this year’s Air and Space Conference and Technology Exposition, which was organized by the Air Force Association. Alenia Aermacchi had the T-100 Integrated Training System on the floor, and BAE is offering its Hawk T2/128. They are all potential bidders for the T-X program and expect the Air Force to put out a Request for Proposal in 2014.

But Lockheed’s was the first jet sim that I ever stepped into, and as such it will always have a special place in my heart — and the pit of my stomach. Perhaps it was the massive rectangular screens that filled every corner of my vision with rapidly refreshing database information, or perhaps (doubtful) it was some fluke of the inner ear. Whatever the reason, it felt as though the simulator was rotating as I banked hard over a detailed representation of San Antonio.

“Is this thing moving, or is it just my brain?” I asked.

“It’s just your brain,” the answer came.

I barrel rolled, looped and spun around the city. The experience seemed a hearty endorsement that simulators can, in fact, take the place of some live training and create an immersive experience. There are graphics so good, so in tune with my movements on the throttle and stick, that they can fool my brain into thinking I’m moving. Yes, a stationary flight simulator gave me vertigo.

Impressive visuals and a realistic-feeling cockpit (so many buttons!) offered up the complete jet experience. While the sensation of movement was the surprise takeaway from the “flight,” the takeoffs and landings were also a surprisingly intuitive pleasure.

“Put the thing on the thing” doesn’t seem like it would be helpful advice, yet that mantra helped me successfully navigate my first (and second) jet landing. Just line up the dot on the runway — like a very slow game of “Duck Hunt” — and the plane practically lands itself.

In what some might liken to a miracle, Paul Randall (chief test pilot for the F-16s at Lockheed Martin) coached me through a take-off, two landings and a lengthy flight around Texas — all without hitting a single pedestrian or parked car. And while the simulator was impressive, it makes sense to think that the Air Force will invest, as Lockheed and competitors guess, in a two-seat trainer for the fifth-generation fighters.

Just like I couldn’t have flown the simulator on my own the first time out, I wouldn’t want to be the lonely pilot in a one-seater F-35 for my first attempt, either.

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